Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Cinema Bestius: Fargo

This outstanding, entertaining film has been so written about and discussed that I considered spending this entire column talking about the stamps. Even though it’s just a three-cent stamp; people don’t much use the three-cent. Of course, whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps…

#30 - Fargo
Universally beloved, Fargo currently enjoys a 94% “Not Stinky” rating on the “Cantalope-A-Meter” or whatever the hell it is they call the amalgamation of critic and civilian opinion over there at that justifiably famous movie review website www.hundredsofduncesisbetterthanjustonedunce.com. That’s because Fargo is another one of those “perfect” films.

The Plot in Brief: Unhappy Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hatches a scheme to replace money he has stolen at the office. He hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife and plans to split the ransom money with them. Dutiful, dogged, and very pregnant Officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is assigned to the case. Will she uncover the plot in time?
Has anyone noticed the similarities between Fargo and the Coen brothers’ next film, The Big Lebowski? Both are skewed takes on film noir material. Both films revolve around a kidnapping engineered by the victim’s husband in need of ready cash. (Both films even feature Peter Stormare as one of the kidnappers.) Most importantly, both films place a wholly contemporary character (common-sense Margie in the case of Fargo, stoner supreme Jeff Lebowski [Jeff Bridges] in the case of Lebowski) right in the middle of all the noir intrigue, thus igniting a conflict not only in the films’ respective narratives but also between our heroes’ values and the values of all the other characters around them.

I have read that the Coen brothers both enjoy a lively sense of humor. Could this duplication have been deliberate? Could the overwhelming success of Fargo have made the Coens think, “Well, for our follow-up film, let’s just do THAT ONE again?” I am reminded here of the Motown vocal group the Four Tops, who followed their 1965 first big hit, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”, with an equally successful tune released only a few months later, featuring virtually the same melody and arrangement — the second hit was even titled “It’s the Same Old Song.” Mind you, I do not think either film suffers by this comparison. The Pope clearly is a big fan of both, given that he placed them in the number 42 and number 30 spots on this holy list of the fifty greatest films of all time. With the passage of time, we have seen Fargo spawn a popular television series and Lebowski spawn… a religion.
AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: Last year at the Flashback Weekend Horror Convention, John Carroll Lynch, who plays Marge’s husband Norm in Fargo, gave an hour-long talk about how he approaches playing a role. This was one of the best and clearest “lectures” I have ever heard about the profession of acting—no bullshit, no pretension, no high-mindedness—it was gold. The Pope wishes that he had recorded it or taken notes, but the Papal vestments, alas, have no pockets. Lynch clearly knows what he’s talking about; he has been featured in more than one hundred movies and television episodes. It speaks to the Coens’ acute casting that he is so good in Fargo, but think back: Lynch is also the scariest damn thing in David Fincher’s sadly overlooked Zodiac. Between playing Norm Gunderson in the former and Arthur Leigh Allen in the latter, Lynch clocked six seasons playing Drew’s cross-dressing brother Steve on The Drew Carey Show. That, my friends and parishioners, is RANGE!

The Pope is not alone in loving Fargo. The film won two Academy Awards (Best Actress for McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for the Coens) and was nominated for five others, won the BAFTA and Cannes Film Festival awards for Best Director, won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress, won the Writers Guild award for Best Screenplay, and swept the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Film, Direction, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Our old pal Roger Ebert wrote that Fargo was both “one of the best films I've ever seen” and “why I love the movies.”
Fargo’s Three Miracles: Terrific casting that provides great performances in every role down to the smallest ones; Frances McDormand’s nuanced and unforgettable performance as Margie Gunderson, which anchors the whole enterprise (the film is inconceivable without her); and the film’s almost hypnotically effective and pervasive frozen landscapes, which argue that one needs to be either incredibly bloodthirsty or incredibly cheerful just to make it alive through one of those Minnesota winters.

“In nomine Coen, et Brainerd, y spiritu Wood Chipper, Ya Hey.”
NOTE: If this short celebration of Fargo has whet your appetite more than a tater tot hot dish at a potluck, may I suggest that you satisfy your appetite by enjoying the full-length podcast that Patrick and I recorded about the film in 2012. Because there’s more to life than a little money, ya know.

24 comments:

  1. That John Carroll Lynch talk you saw sounds amazing. I love that guy. He has such a presence on screen and just commands attention; still doing it in this years Invitation. Fargo is one of those films that I think is nearly perfect. The script, acting, tone, cinematography, setting (of course) all just works perfectly for me. And to think "The English Patient" beat it out for best picture! Haha!

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    1. Just re-watched ZODIAC yesterday on a whim, and I'm so glad JB mentioned JCL. Such great performances in both films.

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  2. I want to mention something but I'm not sure how to do it without sounding like I am shitting on JB's top 50 (which I have enjoyed so far). I know that this top 50 is not meant to be taken too seriously, that the 'Pope' is making fun of the very idea that any one person could construct a list which represents the 'best films ever made'. However, I can't help noticing that this fits into a trend I see with most American lists, which is that it contains nearly all English speaking films, almost all of which are American made. From what I can see, this is entirely an American phenomenon. I have never seen a list of the greatest films of all time from France which included only French speaking films. If Hitchcock, Chaplin and Scorsese were absent from a list we would think that was absurd. Why do we not make the same complaints when Kurosawa, Resnais, Tarkovsky, Renoir and Felini do not show up on American lists? I know making a list is pretty harmless, and usually it is just a way of pointing people in the direction of great films, but this phenomenon helps support a myth for many Americans that all (or most) great films are American. In turn, this leads to many English speaking film goers to avoid seeking out world cinema. Sorry for the rant JB, I hope this isn't taken as me blaming you specifically, I am just trying to highlight something I see a lot on film sites. Also, I am not complaining about the films on your list, it is a great group of films. I just think we need to be careful when we say things like: the best films of all time and fail to be representative of the breadth of world cinema.

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    1. The Pope mentioned in the very first post that he was only including these types of films.

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    2. "The Pope (me) is confining himself (myself) to English-language films, because the Pope (me again) needed to narrow the scope (the Pope Scope) to a manageable level. It is decided! And now, bow your heads (toward the screen) and let us begin."

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    3. Thanks, I must have missed that one.

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    4. No problem, Josh. I agree that "many English speaking film goers avoid seeking out world cinema" though I'm not sure it's because of "best of" lists. Unfortunately, I think it can be as simple as "I don't like subtitles" (how often do you hear that?!, drives me nuts) and also there is little marketing in the US for foreign films to the average film watcher. Those into film will seek out the alternative but I think most Americans are just causal movie goers who see whatever is big at the box office and whatever is pushed in their face by marketing.

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    5. Thank you, apostolate Chaybee, for speaking up in the Pope's hour of need. The Pope was at the dentist getting his holy molars worked on. Young Josh? You are forgiven.

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    6. No problem, your Popeness.

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    7. I prefer "Your Sprocket Holiness."

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    8. I agree Chaybee, the best of lists are not to blame for the phenomenon, but I think they contribute by legitimizing the phenomenon. I once had a conversation with an American film goer who claimed he had seen all the greatest films of all time (which is an insane claim for anyone to make), however when I asked him how he determined what films were 'the greatest' he cited some AFI list. I started pressing him on his film knowledge and found out he had never seen a single Italian film! Yet, he believed un-ironically that he had seen every great film.

      Thank you for your forgiveness, your sprocket holiness!

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    9. I originally wanted to say "the foreign films are all in the top 20", but thanks for the clarification Chaybee.

      I love subtitles. Actually, as a naturally born English speaker, I watch nearly all movies with subtitles. As a kind of good French speaker, I watch French movies in French with French subtitles. Other movies I watch in the natural language with English subtitles.....

      The damn worst, is, in damn Quebec, when we go to the movie theatre, half the freaking movies are dubbed over in French. dubbed the f over. My biggest problem (because I don't go to see those ones) is that it reduces the number of movies being shown....they have to add a ton of extra showings in French. Thus the Neon Demon never showed there. But Finding Dory showed in a bunch of screens in English, and a bunch more in French.

      Worse yet, a huge chunk of the population watches ALL their movies in French...American movies dubbed over, of course.

      Recently, my Ex, a francophone, got my kids to watch Pixels, dubbed into French. I understand why she's pushing for them to learn/watch things in French (and I'm all for that), but I had a pretty good chuckle that they were exposed to that piece of crap...dubbed over. My 7 year old apparently liked it????

      OK, rant over.

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    10. Maybe going to see an "animated" movie dubbed over isn't as bad....but a live movie.

      I know it's pretty common in Quebec, but I'd be curious to see if it's as common in Europe. Presumably, much more "local" movie would be shown, but I wonder whether the majority of English language movies are dubbed or not. There are virtually no subtitled English movies in Quebec. They are either dubbed or in English.

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    11. Wow and I thought Australia didn't get anything. Things like Neon Demon or even High Rise never get picked up, and if it does it is usually in a festival. So thank goodness for the Melbourne Film Festival. Though I saw A Man Called Ove (swedish) I don't really recomend it - it was for my bosses birthday, but it was nice to see something with subtitles outside of a festival. I have been loving the Pope's list because I think its a really great footing for movies and where to start. Then you can go in so many different directions. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the things I haven't seen, espcially when considering all movies from France, Russia, Italy, Argentia, China, Japan, and even Australia. To many movies too little time.

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    12. You forget South Korea. It's ridiculous how many super movies come out of a country that size.

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    13. Yes I did forget South Korea! You know you are going to have an amazing time in movie from South Korea.

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  3. This a great movie. I say great for the ok movies, and for the best movies, because I'm a crap writer, but this is one of the best.

    I freaking love Macy's character. How he has truth staring him in the face, but he just chooses to ignore it. That really speaks to me (and not really in a good way, but still), because I've been exactly the same way, through teenage-hood with my folks, through marriage, having kids, divorce....just steely eyed and pretend all is right. Great movie, and so much to love, but he's my favorite part of it.

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  4. \?I'm really loving this Cinema Besuis series. Now we should be placing bet on who will be first? I would guess that Bladerunner and Alien will come soon, but not first. Any bets? Wild Wild West? Back To The Future 3? Fantastic Planet (it's a freaking good one)?

    Your guess is as good as mine.

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    1. I will only say that it's not Wild Wild West.

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    2. Note -- You all should know that JB typed that last comment while sitting inside a giant mechanical spider.

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  6. Oh and Fargo is frecken perfect!

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